THE great thing about Jeffrey Sachs is his optimism. The US guru of sustainable development strives hard in his latest work, The Age of Sustainable Development, to persuade us that we can save the world and all live the good life – all 7,8,9, or eventually even 10 billion of us.
The other big thing about Sachs, who in his day job is director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute in New York, is his network of contacts. He is politically hyperconnected, a friend of world leaders, and able to get the UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon to write a foreword for the new book. So if anyone can persuade those leaders that they should do what it takes, then it is Sachs. But what exactly is the sustainability blueprint?
Sustainable development is a deceptively simple idea: we should manage the world’s affairs so as not to destroy the place for our children.
Who could disagree? But since the idea became a touchstone for international policy-makers about 30 years ago, it has become mired in confusion.
At its root, Sachs insists that sustainable development is an academic discipline. He calls it « a way to understand the world as a complex interaction of economic, social, environmental and political systems » – systems whose analyses conventionally share neither a language nor a way of thinking. But more than that, it attempts to combine an academic approach with an ethical outlook to help create policy prescriptions. « It is also a normative or ethical view of the world… one that delivers wellbeing for its citizens today and for future generations, » he argues.
This book is a heroic attempt to combine this ambitious agenda in an accessible, jargon-free way that politicians – and the rest of us – might sign up to.
The themes are familiar enough: globalised economic growth has generated « fabulous wealth », but also extreme poverty, a soaring population and potentially catastrophic disruption of key planetary processes such as the carbon, water and nitrogen cycles – disruption that, Sachs says, threatens the physical basis of our very survival.
He pulls no punches in his diagnosis. But what sets Sachs apart is the determined optimism of his prognosis. He believes both in technology’s ability to deliver good lives without breaking the planet’s life-support systems, and in the ability of governments to organise for the task ahead.
Sachs is no hair-shirt environmentalist. Many others, he notes, argue that to save our world, we need to halt the economic juggernaut that has taken us to the « planetary boundaries », beyond which breakdown would ensue. « I argue differently, » he says. Our salvation, he believes, lies not in painful trade-offs between getting rich and saving the planet, but in finding virtuous synergies.
Choosing the right technologies, he says, we can achieve continued economic growth and also honour the planetary boundaries.
We can grow more food with less water and fertiliser; we can generate more energy while burning much less carbon; and we can bring greater fairness to the human world without sacrificing economic growth or efficiency.
His techno-optimism leads him to believe in nuclear power, in « smart » cities as crucibles of innovation and, more cautiously, in GM technology. He embraces the theories of Russian economist Nikolai Kondratiev about how the world’s economic advances have been driven by successive bursts of technological change: steam engines, railways and steel, electrification and chemicals, automobiles, the digital revolution, and now – Sachs hopes – a sustainability revolution. It will be built around nanotechnology, smart agriculture, renewable energy and big efficiency gains, all driven by new skills gained in the digital revolution.
Perhaps the most striking thing about his manifesto for sustainability, however, is its political optimism.
He believes in government and in the transformative powers of political leaders to deliver a better world.
He is convinced, for instance, that sub-Saharan Africa – the apparent antithesis of sustainability, where extreme poverty, social disintegration, environmental degradation and bad government seem in gruesome harness – is taking a turn for the better.
For him, that is symbolised by the ability of governments there in the past five years to finally get a grip on the region’s biggest health hazard, malaria.
But I found him least convincing when he explains exactly how politics will deliver – especially in the areas of international governance where his globetrotting pedigree and UN links would suggest he could offer the greatest insights. His analysis of this is surprisingly sketchy, given how important he thinks politicians are in delivering a sustainable world.
He lapses instead into UN-speak, and is almost silent on the politics of global trade and resource « grabs » by international capital. Surely these are central to the growing global inequalities that he sees as fundamental social and economic barriers to sustainability?
And his chapter on climate change is weighed down by pessimism about the power of fossil-fuel lobbies to stymie action. « The global politics of climate change have been largely stuck since 1992, » he writes. If climate change is, as he says, the biggest problem facing the world, then that observation makes his broad-brush political optimism seem shallow and naive.
In this, he is not alone. The sustainable-development community may have a clear idea about where it wants to get to; it may see the technological road ahead; and it may see that there are no insurmountable roadblocks. But it does not yet have a clear political narrative for how to get to the promised land.
As the quote on the cover of my edition suggests, Sachs has probably produced the best book to date on how to manage the planet for 10 billion people. Sadly, the best is not good enough. If we really want to reach an age of sustainability, it will take more than optimism
Fred Pearce is a consultant for New Scientist
Reblogged from New Scientist
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